Supplement Feature - September 2010
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Sports Turf 101

The Benefits & Drawbacks of Synthetic & Natural Turf

By Daniel P. Smith

Natural or synthetic turf? It remains one of the hottest conversations in recreation and athletic circles today.

Purists and traditionalists, from soccer to baseball, champion natural grass as the only choice, an option that roots competition in its natural environment and embraces history as well as science. Pragmatists, in contrast, tout the benefits of synthetic fields, which typically offer greater usability and play opportunities.

For many sports turf managers, entry into the industry was prompted first by science, inspiring an intrinsic bias toward natural turf. Over time, such individuals come to learn about synthetic surfaces, often out of necessity—60 percent of Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) members, in fact, report that they tend to both natural and synthetic turf surfaces—and gradually see value in both options.

"There's definitely a need for both surfaces, and our members in particular recognize that," STMA CEO Kim Heck said.

Truth be told, both surface types have been the target of criticism and contempt.

This past spring, for instance, the New York City Soccer Officials Association boycotted games at four of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park's nine fields, citing safety and liability concerns. Two of the four boycotted fields featured artificial turf with gaping tears and ripped seams; two other fields were natural surfaces littered with bottle caps, glass and rocks, as well as dangerous divots and holes full of standing water.

Despite their trials, when you're choosing a sports surface, you're going to have to select either synthetic or natural terrain—a reality that has elevated the debate alongside the need for understanding.